We have made it safely into Tawau! The combined forces of the Eastern Sabah Security Zone, known as ESSCOM, escorted us through pirate-infested waters (literally), but we are all safe and sound now. We had zippy little police boats, big naval warships, and planes and helicopters buzzing overhead at times keeping an eye on us. There were even undercover operatives in little fishing boats!
This is all because this end of Borneo is extremely close to Mindanao, a troubled province of the Philippines where religious extremist groups (eg Abu Sayyef) and “kidnap-for-ransom” criminals flourish; and in recent history, this has spilled over into some of the tourist hot-spots of Sabah. In late 2016, a German man was kidnapped while his girlfriend was shot dead when gunmen attacked their yacht while sailing across Sabah waters, and numerous tugboats and fishing boats have been pirated. So ESSCOM was formed in 2013 to “strengthen maritime security in eastern Sabah”. So following a detailed situation brief in Kudat, we linked up with the ESSCOM escort boats and sailed out in convoy.
Not long after we left the natural sanctuary of the Kinabatangan River, we saw the news that a tugboat had been boarded by 10 armed men in nearby Tambisan! Fortunately for them, ESSCOM responded quickly and the intruders fled. But we were all on higher alert the night we anchored in Tambisan.
Our next stop after Tambisan was the stunning lagoon of Pulau Bohaydulang, a former volcano. The view from the lookout is unforgettable.
From here we made daily trips to the nearby dive meccas, especially the macro-crazy Pulau Mabul, where we spotted the freaky-looking frogfish; and Pulau Sipidan, one of the top ten dive sites of the world, famous for its barracuda vortex which we were lucky enough to see! Along with stacks of sharks, turtles and plenty of other awesomeness.
Anyway, a big shout out to all of the ESSCOM lads for keeping us safe! Bloody legends. (And if you are a tourist or yachtie considering coming to Eastern Sabah, don’t be put off. It’s an amazing part of the world and ESSCOM is working very hard to keep it safe with permanent presence on most of the tourist resort islands, so plan your trip!).
*cover photo credit: Deb Dewhurst